Habease Proper in Priest Sex Abuse Case
September 15, 2005
Mr. Martin, a priest, was convicted of sexually molesting a 13-year-old boy in a classic he said/she said case. But this case had three kickers.
First, Denise Watson Gilbreath, a former Florida prosecutor, testified without objection that when she worked with Martin on policies designed to prevent priest sex abuse, Mr. Martin that he "strongly disagreed with the policy recommendation she eventually helped develop," and that Martin "became very agitated and felt that the policy needed to ensure that people accusing ministers of sexual abuse were telling the truth before the parish involved the police." Further, "Gilbreath testified [again, without objection] that she felt that this was an inappropriate reaction that focused too greatly on protecting the accused clergymen, not the accusers."
Second, police officer Charles Morancheck testified, without objection, that at a meeting with Martin, the priest asserted his right to counsel and "provided only biographical information and did not answer questions about Carl S.’s allegations." Further, "Morancheck testified that after describing the accusations to him, Martin did not make any verbal responses, but raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips."
Third, Martin testified and also presented character evidence. "At closing argument, the prosecutor argued that the jury should not be swayed by the testimony of Martin’s character witnesses, because even men like Jeffrey Dahmer and Theodore Oswald had character witnesses." Martin's lawyer did not object, even though this was right after they pulled body parts from Dahmer's refrigerator.
After being convicted and exhausting his state court remedies, the district court refused to grant his habeas petition. A unanimous three-judge panel reversed. (Yes, that's right - reversed.) Martin v. Grosshans, No. 04-4247. The panel found that Martin's trial counsel had been ineffective under Strickland, and moreover, that the state court's unreasonably applied Strickland to Martin's case. The panel provided an interesting discussion of consciousness of guilt evidence, but before going into the legalisms, let's read between the lines for the real rule. Here goes...
Prisoners almost always lose habeas cases, and for good reasons. The AEDPA, unconstitutional though it might be, makes winning habeas cases difficult. First, the procedures are agonizingly complex, and second, the AEDPA requires that even convictions obtained unconstitutionally stand, so long as the state courts did unreasonably violate the Constitution (as if there's ever a reasonable constitutional violation!). Moreover, there is usually substantive evidence of guilt. In drug cases, the police find drugs. In most sex-crime cases, the police find DNA, or the complaining witness suffers some injury.
But here, the complaining witness did not suffer and physical injury, and there wasn't any physical evidence that the priest had molested him. In he said/she said cases, federal courts generally require state courts to comply with the Constitution. In theory, the same AEDPA is applied to every case. In fact, in cases lacking physical evidence, reviewing courts apply it a bit more strenuously. Indeed, the panel called the decision to prosecute Martin "imponderable." I've always agreed with this approach, since it's more likely an innocent person will be convicted in a weak case when the prosecution violates the Constitution. Enough realpolitik.
The panel found that Ms. Gilbreath's testimony was irrelevant and prejudicial, and that Mr. Martin's counsel was ineffective for not objecting to it (uh, yeah). The government argued that Gilbreath's testimony was relevant consciousness of guilt evidence. Wrong. "First, Martin was not even aware of the accusations against him at the time of his interactions with Gilbreath. Moreover, his contact with Gilbreath was in a completely different jurisdiction and several years after the time of the alleged assaults. Second, and most important, a belief that clergy should be protected from false allegations of sexual misconduct and afforded due process does not imply a guilty conscience."
The panel further noted that Morancheck's testimony did nothing but punish Martin for exercising his right to counsel, and thus should not have been admissible. "Finally, Martin’s counsel was also deficient for failing to move for a mistrial after the prosecution’s closing argument. The prosecutor’s attempt to neutralize Martin’s character witnesses by referring to Jeffrey Dahmer and Theodore Oswald was inflammatory and improper." Martin was prosecuted in Wisconsin, and thus, "[t]he reference to Dahmer was particularly troubling, considering the trial took place in Wisconsin in 1995, when the memory of Dahmer’s sexual exploitation and gruesome murders of young men was still fresh in the minds of area residents."
Martin is an interesting case, and although it's only eight pages, it offers a lot to ponder. Read it.